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South Africa Strings Programs Inspire Thoughts on Community

Juilliard alum learns important lesson from string-playing teens

Caitlin_ Bochabela Strings_holst Sectional

Ever since returning from a five-week residency in South Africa this summer, I’ve been thinking about how I might condense my experiences into an article for the Juilliard Journal. Should I talk about performing as a guest member of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra? Would I mention the impressive students I worked with in Bloemfontein, alongside my fellow post-Academy colleagues? What about the country itself, still going through a great deal of economic and social evolution? And of course there’s the unforgettable landscape and game reserves...

One day in early August, in the midst of wild news coming from the world’s political centers and the international economic markets, I logged on to Facebook and noticed a friend’s status update quoting Martin Luther King Jr., ostensibly in response to the recent riots and unrest in the London area: “There is? nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people in that society who feel that they have no stake in it; who feel that they have nothing to lose. People who have a stake in their society, protect that society, but when they don't have it, they unconsciously want to destroy it.”

This got me thinking even more closely about society’s insiders and outsiders.

A big buzzword in the music world these days, especially in elective conservatory classes or other professional development forums, is “community”—how to build it, how to give back to it, how to lead it, and the importance of nurturing it through music.

But what does that mean in everyday terms?

And what kind of commitment does it take to start seeing a real difference?

Ever since returning from a five-week residency in South Africa this summer, I’ve been thinking about my experience in light of all of these social, political, and economic developments, especially as I sat down to write about the trip.

Should I talk about performing as a guest member of the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra? Would I mention the impressive students I worked with in Bloemfontein, alongside my fellow post-Academy colleagues? What about the country itself, still going through a great deal of economic and social evolution?

The Joy of the Bochabela Orchestra

After arriving in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in early June, Angelia Cho, Brenton Caldwell, Joanna Frankel, Juilliard Academy staff member Betsie Becker and I still did not know exactly what to expect during this long and varied residency. The first leg of the trip was focused on working with students from the Mangaung String Programme, and specifically, some of the older students in a group called the Bochabela String Orchestra.

We arrived at the Musicon building where our first day’s agenda included giving a short performance and also coaching Holst’s The Planets. Peter Guy, an American bass player residing in South Africa since the mid-’80s and the founder of this program, called the students in from their break and about 30 teenagers began congregating in the orchestra room while we set up; they were animatedly chatting in maybe four different African languages, plus English (South Africa has eleven official languages, including English and Africaans). They wore fashionable clothing and had a mature, easygoing confidence about them.

Pretty cool teenagers.

Further Resources

Cellist Caitlin Sullivan, and three other colleagues—violinist Angelia Cho, violinist Joanna Marie Frankel, and violist Brenton Caldwell—ventured to South Africa this summer. All are graduates of the Academy, a fellowship program sponsored by the Juilliard School of Music, the Weill Music Institute, and Carnegie Hall.

We performed an entire Haydn string quartet for them, plus a fun movement from a Jennifer Higdon quartet that was inspired by a fiddling reel dance. They were a captivated audience, and gave us a warm and enthusiastic reception when we finished—our first impression was a success!

And then it was their turn to welcome us with a little musical performance of their own.

The Bochabela Orchestra took their places (all violinists and violists were standing) while Peter leaned against the wall in the back of the room, quietly looking on; he said he didn’t like getting in their way and that he would just mess things up. With a generous cue by a beautiful girl in a winter cap, the orchestra began—and so did the joyful swaying, the smiling glances, the dancing, the perfectly homogenous sound and the general joy of playing a few arrangements of some traditional African tunes. A female bass player was mesmerizing; with her head tilted back slightly and her eyes closed, her shoulders danced with excitement as she laid down a powerful rhythmic foundation for the others.

My colleagues and I stood there with our mouths agape. I had never seen a group of teenage musicians so physically unencumbered and comfortable with how they moved and expressed themselves, so naturally at ease with their instruments. They had a unique ability to connect with the music and each other in such an effortless manner, yet still with very fine precision. After they finished playing and our roaring applause died down, our work together was about to begin. As we started conversing with them and organizing our rehearsal strategy, I kept asking myself—how did this amazing program in Bloemfontein, South Africa come about?


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